The Shipping News, 2002-01-05, 11:35 p.m.
Warning - This will contain spoilers. This is also my first review ever. It’s not very good. So progress at your own risk. You have been warned. You can go to IMDB and find out the cast list.
'The Shipping News' contained much of the familiar. That was my first thought in leaving it. The weather and the people were familiar, however clichéd, and the land was home. Some background - 'The Shipping News' is based on a novel by Annie Proulx and is set in the fictional community Quoyles Cove, Newfoundland and Labrador. Hence the familiar. It was shot in Trinity, which is located a few hours from where I live. I've been on the ferry that they used for a shot. Little touches such as the 'No Puffin' signs in the greasy spoon. It was Newfoundland. I have to say that it was great to see Hollywood make a Newfoundland and Labrador film in Newfoundland and Labrador.
I do think that some people will think parts were exaggerated. But yes, people did move their houses when they moved. It was common in fact. Not all of them were because they were being run out of town, however, historical artwork and records show similar scenes. It was chilling to see them on the big screen. In many communities, people do rely on boats and each person has their own. We have some weird local dishes and not all of us have eaten them. Car accidents are local interest in some communities and people are 'sensitive' to different things. We are a different kind of place, yet we are open, honest, caring and concerned - something which is noted by almost anyone who has visited.
While this is a story containing much of the familiar, it was in so many ways, a universal story. I think that as Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, we need to remember this. As a province, we are sensitive to slights on our customs and lives. This movie depicts incest and piracy, drunken violence and a lack of modern amenities. Yet, these themes are universal. For me, my first thought was 'Great, now people will think we all rape our sisters, eat seal flippers, have no electricity and beat the crap out of peoples dreams when we're drunk'. Yet, I was reminded that these attributes are universal and that overriding that, the hospitality and kindness of Newfoundlanders was displayed throughout the film. Newfoundland is a harsh land and can cause great hurt. People everywhere are harsh and can cause hurt. Yet, in this story, we must remember that Newfoundland is the place they return to so they can heal.
This movie tells the tale of Quoyle, played by Kevin Spacey. We learn at the beginning that he had a cruel father, who felt that he had earned everything he had - 'Nothing had been given to (him)'. We begin seeing Quoyle as a young boy being pushed into the water, being forced to learn to swim, in a true 'Sink or Swim' situation. We then see Quoyle surfacing in a number of meaningless and low intellect jobs, until finally he lands on a job as the ink setter for a newspaper. One day his life is changed by the advent of Petal, an easy and open womyn who jumps into his car when running from a boyfriend. She sleeps with him, he loves her, she gets pregnant, he loves her, she sleeps around, he loves her, she brings boyfriends home, and yet he loves her. Spacey plays the hapless victim, asking if her friend has left, taking care of Bunny, their child. Bunny craves love from her mother, loving her jewelry and her attention. Triplets Alyssa, Kaitlyn and Lauren Gainer play Bunny, perhaps because the character is young, yet has so much dramatic screen time.
Then... Quoyles parents die. In a bizarre scene, we hear a message from his father stating that it was time for them to 'check out' and restating that 'nothing had been given to him'. Finding that he gets nothing at their death, Petal leaves Quoyle, taking Bunny. Quoyles aunt Agnis Hamm (played by the wonderful and amazing Judi Dench) appears, wanting to say goodbye to her brother’s ashes. As Quoyle takes a phone call, frantic about Bunny, we see Agnis take the ashes and put them in a bag. She mentions to Quoyle that she's returning to Newfoundland, their ancestral home. Shortly after that, Bunny is returned. Petal had sold her to a black market adoption agency. Petal however, will not return. She and a boyfriend were killed when their car crashed into the ocean. Quoyle decides to go, with Agnis, to Newfoundland. They return to a broken down, yet somewhat sound, old house, lashed onto the shoreline with ropes, water dripping and broken windows, no electricity and no indoor toilet. Not quite the perfect start for a new life, but a start.
All of this information is background on Kevin Spaceys character, the life he is leaving and where he returns. He is recovering from a desperate relationship, he has a child he has been totally responsible for, and he has a dead end, non-stimulating job. He is not the greatest of men. Agnis, his aunt, is determined and tight lipped. Bunny repeats Petals words ('You'll get it wrong daddy. Petal says you get everything wrong'), yet relies on her father. The main characters are pitiful and keep themselves locked up inside, not letting other characters or the audience in. It is to the credit of the actors that they give us enough to make us want to learn more about their characters. There is a scene where Judi Dench as Agnis takes the ashes of her brother and pours them into the outhouse, then, with a look of inner pleasure on her face, begins to use the toilet. For me, this scene as a reason to keep watching, if only to find out why there was such hatred.
Of course in his redemption as a man, Quoyle falls for a local womyn. Played by Julianne Moore, Wavey Prowse runs the local daycare and is a single mother of Herry. Herry is a 'slow' four year old whose mental capacities are attributed to the grief that his mother felt while she was pregnant. Wavey's husband died in a shipwreck during her eight month of pregnancy and we are given the impression that she is a grieving widow. After a few non-starters, Quoyle and Wavey become friends as their children begin to bond. This relationship grows slowly and is beautiful to watch. Two quite wounded people, each bottling their hurt, yet not totally allowing it to keep them away from reaching out. It is when Wavey and Quoyle give up their past relationships – Wavey by telling her secret, Quoyle by releasing Petal from his life that they are able to connect totally. The process is slow and painful, yet beautiful to see. If only Julianne Moore spoke with a Newfoundland accent, not Irish!
Her dialect coach off screen was Quoyles life coach onscreen. Gordon Pincent, a Newfoundland actor, looking fantastic for his 71 years played Billy Pretty. When Quoyle looks for a job, he is hired as a reporter for the local paper writing 'The Shipping News'. Billy Pretty is his mentor there, teaching him to look for the heart and headline of a story. Pincent steals every scene he's in, whether he's pointing out a headline, toasting Brazil or informing Quoyle of the Quoyle family history.
For there is a history. First we learn that the Quoyles were not resettling their house - they were driven out of their town. They were pirates, causing shipwrecks and murdering by torturous means. Of 'the old Quoyles', there is only one remaining, as after the house was moved and tied onto the rocks, many of the family left for other areas (as is the story for much of Newfoundland). Bunny sees ghosts and is sensitive about the house (sensitive meaning intuitive and psychic in this case). The ghost is of course the 'Old Quoyle', whom Quoyle has a midnight conversation with and learns Agnis' secret. In learning it, in a terrifying scene, we understand what has made her who she is.
Through storms and wakes, drunken late night parties and early morning fights, Quoyle begins to prosper. He gains confidence in his work, fighting his manager and gaining his voice. In an amazing scene near the end, there is a lessening of the burden of the past. Quoyle is released from his past life and his past mistakes and is able to move on again. Newfoundland and Labrador, despite the miseries that it presented, helped heal him. The miseries were external. Yet it was these miseries that helped heal the internal.
I stated this story was a universal one. Perhaps Quoyle could have gone to England and sought out his past there, or healed in New Hampshire. However, for me, this movie needed the familiar to help sustain and enhance the movie. Newfoundland and Labrador is a land where you need to be hardy to survive. There are challenges presented by the landscape and the weather that amaze those unfamiliar with the land - even amaze the occupants occasionally! Yet, we have sustained our lives and we have survived. And that is what Quoyle drew upon to build his strength and his will to live. The themes are universal. The healing, local. Having to overcome such natural odds, Quoyle is able to overcome the unnatural ones that life has thrown at him.
The actors do a great job in this film, making characters that communicate so little likable. They leave you feeling that you have seen them grow. The characters begin quite small. Yet by the end of the movie, they are life-sized. Through humour and tears, we see these people as not people to be pitied, but people who are learning their way through life.
Would I see it again? I might rent it. There is enough in it to warrant a second showing.
And for those wondering, I’ve never eaten Seal-Flipper pie!